State installing new dust storm detection system

State installing new dust storm detection system
Crews installing new dust storm detection and warning system on I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson. (Source: Tucson News Now)

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The Arizona Department of Transportation is spending nearly $13 million to install a new, dust storm detection and warning system on a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix.

Following a five year study, the state found more than half the accidents caused by dust storms, happened on the stretch of interstate between Eloy and Picacho, milepost 209 to 219. There were 85 dust related accidents between Tucson and Phoenix, 43 of them on that ten mile stretch.

So the state is paying for a pilot program to install 13 permanent highway cameras that will be monitored 24/7 at its traffic operations center in Phoenix.

It will also install a radar system which will peer westward into the desert to detect approaching storms that will affect driving conditions.

And it will improve its warning system to alert motorists to the hazards.

"We're building a dust detection zone," said Tom Herrmann, a spokesman for ADOT. "We'll see in real time what the situation is and then make adjustments."

The system will have permanent, electronic speed limit and information signs in the median that will warn motorists of the approaching traffic hazard.

The speed limit can be reduced from 70 mph to 35 mph depending on the conditions "or even close the road if the situation is that bad," said Herrmann.

At the National Weather Service Dust Storm Workshop at Central Arizona College in Coolidge, Kenneth Waters, a state meteorologist, announced updated plans to warn motorists of the upcoming dangers.

It's been proven that many people have "warning fatigue" because the dust storm warnings are not targeted and focused.

"People in the San Francisco Bay area have gotten Phoenix dust storm alerts," Waters said. "That happened a number of times last year."

Because the way phone signals are set up, oftentimes a motorist 150 miles from a potential dust storm will get a warning.

Now, under a new system, the warnings will be more focused.

"The footprint is going to be dramatically reduced so we're really targeting just those areas that are the most vulnerable," he said.

Studies show why that targeting is so valuable.

"More of the casualties, the fatalities and such, have come from these very small dust storm channels," he said. "You're talking 100 to 200 feet wide."

While most motorists know to leave the highway in a big storm, they can oftentimes be caught off guard and may be slow to react to a quick sudden burst of dust from a small storm.

The dust detection system "will help us identify when the visibility is bad on the roadway, help us identify when the storms are coming, and help us get the word to drivers."

If this pilot program proves to be successful in reducing accidents, it may be replicated in other hot spots such as I-10 near the New Mexico state line. Or it might work in snow country along I-40 near Flagstaff.

Early warning to drivers is the key but having the system in place is the only want to insure that warning gets out.

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